Confession is difficult. So difficult, that some of us will only confess to a part of what we have done. That approach, however, doesn’t help much.
In a study of 2,113 people (58 percent male, average age 30), Eyal Pe’er, PhD, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, along with Alessandro Acquisti, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon University, and Shaul Shalvi, PhD, from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, asked participants to predict the results of 10 virtual coin tosses and report how many times they were correct. They received a 10-cent bonus for each correct guess. Participants were also told even if they acknowledged cheating, they would still get paid according to their original report.
So how many people confessed to cheating? While 35 percent of participants cheated by adding about three correct guesses to their report, among those who cheated, 19 percent then confessed — and of those, 60 percent confessed to everything and 40 percent confessed partially Interestingly, the percent of partial confessors was higher among those who cheated a lot, whereas it was lower among those who cheated only a little bit (Pe’er et al., 2014).
Another coin-tossing experiment involving 719 people (65 percent male, average age 29), revealed the psychological result of these confessions. This time, the researchers asked participants to report their feelings, both positive and negative, just before or after their decision to confess.
The results were fascinating. Participants who partially confessed, especially those who cheated the most, expressed more negative emotions, such as fear, shame and guilt, compared to those who confessed everything, did not confess or did not cheat at all (Pe’er et al., 2014).
Even more telling was that participants in both coin-tossing experiments were unaware that the researchers had tracked the outcomes of their individual coin tosses and compared those outcomes to what each participant reported.
In another experiment, 357 participants (60 percent male, average age 30), described a time when they had partially or fully confessed to a misbehavior. People who described partial confessions expressed higher regret than people who reported full confessions. Additionally, full confessors were more relieved after their confessions when compared to partial confessors, and partial confessors felt more guilt and shame than the full confessors (Pe’er et al., 2014).
Another study showed that confessing fully is also better received by those around us. Here, researchers told participants about a man in a previous die-rolling study who reported that he rolled a six, knowing the higher the number, the more money he would receive. One group was told he later confessed to actually rolling a one, which was considered a full confession. Another group was told he confessed to rolling a five – a partial confession – and another group learned that he made no confession, maintaining that he rolled a six. All participants were asked if they believed the person after hearing what he said he actually rolled. Participants were more likely to believe the full confession than the partial confession, and the partial confession was more credible than a non-confession, according to the results (Pe’er et al., 2014).
“Confessing to only part of one’s transgressions is attractive to a lot of people because they expect the confession to be more believable and guilt-relieving than not confessing,” explains Pe’er, “But our findings show just the opposite is true” (Pe’er, 2014).
The problem is that while we may be more likely to only make a partial confession – as oppose to a full one – only telling part of the truth, as opposed to not confessing at all, actually leads to increased feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety. As Pe’er notes, “It’s best to commit to an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to confessing” (Pe’er, 2014).
“Paradoxically, people seeking redemption by partially admitting their big lies feel worse because they do not take complete responsibility for their behaviors. True relief may require people to fully come clean” (Pe’er et al., 2014).
The takeaway is that when it comes to confessions, what’s best is to tell the whole truth, and yes, nothing but the truth.
Photo by Stewart Black